Just like Rupert Murdoch, former Media Watch compere Jonathan Holmes is a man of firm opinions, a prime one being that the press lord is a nasty piece of work whose alleged deficiencies of decency and character need to be highlighted at every opportunity. The ABC provided Holmes with a Monday night pulpit to do just that, as well as preach other sermons on behalf of favourite causes — his suggestion, for example, that viewers complain to broadcasting regulators about climate-change “deniers” being given unwarranted access to microphones, airtime and free speech.
When his 15 minutes of weekly fame ran their course, Fairfax Media stepped in to save Holmes from the full measure of his superannuated irrelevance. Small (and shrinking) though the audience of the Age and SMH may be, his columns’ appearance on those newspapers’ opinion pages must surely alleviate the urge to critique his local bowling club’s newsletter or, when the spirit is particularly strong and very much upon him, harangue strangers on street corners with Tim Flannery’s latest prophecies of climate doom. Best of all, as the printed page conveys neither smirk nor smug with the same felicity as the TV screen, readers are exposed only to the substance, such as it is, of Holmes’ attempts at insight and analysis. Mercifully, they are spared the spectacle of that Christmas panto’ eye-rolling which the national broadcaster valued at $187,380 per year.
Today in the Fairfax press, Holmes illustrates yet again why his reputation is better served by being little read. He is fulminating about Murdoch — surprise! surprise! — and has many kind words to say about Guardian journalist Nick Davies, who infamously reported that News Corp hacks deleted messages from the phone bank of slain English teen Milly Dowling. This turned out not to be the case, and it is to Holmes credit that he devotes several paragraphs to noting that Davies got it hoplelessly wrong. Further, he observes that Davies, now re-paying airfare and accommodation by allowing Australia’s lit-fest luvvies and other awestruck provincials to rub against him, ungraciously refuses to acknowledge any error whatsoever.
Well, you might think, there is a column ready-made for any media critic, even a mostly retired one: Shameless Hack Backs Bogus Scoop is how the imps on Murdoch’s infernal sub-editors’ tables might described it in a headline. Alas, but not surprisingly, Holmes prefers to focus his ire not on the journalist who got it wrong, but on the publisher who, in this instance at least, was wronged and very much so. Here is his conclusion:
…what’s clear is that the British tabloids in general, and those owned by Rupert Murdoch in particular, were awash with arrogance and criminality. If those vices have been moderated, if only a little, it’s thanks in no small part to Davies.
What’s less clear is whether Rupert Murdoch’s political power has been curbed. In the forward to Hack Attack, Davies writes: “This is a story about power and truth.” But the truth about Murdoch’s power is that it doesn’t derive from the dirty tricks of scandal-sheets like the News of the World.
It derives from his willingness to use his news outlets to cover politics in a ruthlessly partisan fashion. And as the most recent elections here and in Britain made clear, the phone hacking scandal hasn’t moderated that ruthlessness one little bit.
Now this is rich for several eye-popping reasons, not the least of which is Holmes’ targeted inconsistency, which some might regard as nothing less than rank hypocrisy.
First, Davies was speaking at University of Technology, Sydney, where academic Wendy Bacon’s acolytes at New Matilda hacked and published Barry Spurr’s private emails. In an earlier column, Holmes justified this gross intrusion on the grounds that the now-former Sydney University Professor of Poetry had served as a minor consultant on the Abbott government’s review of the National School Curriculum. Apparently, if you follow Holmes’ logic, Spurr’s unfortunate turns of phrase in private notes invalidate his observation that there is little in the way of outstanding Aboriginal literature and that too much of what is not very good has been finding its way into school reading lists at the expense of the classics and examples of the Western canon.
Ms Bacon isn’t Rupert Murdoch, so by Holmes’ reckoning the violation of Spurr’s right to conduct a private conversation was “a lay-down case of a breach of privacy justified by the public interest.”
Later in the same column, he addressed the case of Freya Newman – another product of UTS, oddly enough — who stole and leaked details of a $60,000 scholarship awarded to Tony Abbott’s daughter, landing herself in court as a consequence. Newman’s betrayal of her employer’s trust saw Holmes liken her legal plight to those of Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Edward, and fugitive US traitor Edward Snowden. When you’ve worked for so long at the ABC, where everyone dresses their views and opinions to the left, the hothouse hyperbole of that taxpayer-funded microclimate must come to seem like valid reflection of the real world, the one in which it is the sorry lot of those not blessed by Mark Scott’s inspired ignorance of his organisation’s Charter to exist beneath a pall of opinions so vile and unsound that no Balmain or Fitzroy hostess would tolerate them.
Holmes’ inconsistency in defending the hack attacks on Spurr and a young woman whose only crime it was to have been born the daughter of a future conservative Prime Minister is quite astonishing – or would be were it not for the sure aim of Holmes’ highly selective eye, which somehow overlooks the sins of the very masthead below which his latest pronouncements on journalistic ethics appear: those of the Age.
Hacking is a shocking and terrible thing when Murdoch’s dark legions are doing it, says Holmes. But when three reporters working for the paper in which his column appears are caught red-handed doing likewise, well, why interrupt the narrative by mentioning that trifling detail?
For those with short memories: Reporters Royce Millar, Nick McKenzie and Ben Schneiders were charged and subsequently admitted their guilt in illegally accessing a Labor Party database replete with personal information and profiles of voters. After being provided with a log-on password by a Greens candidate, they had a jolly good poke around in the files.
Through it all, at least until the Age hackers admitted their guilt, the Age presented its hacking as “another attack on press freedom.” Yes, really.
Those of a certain age might remember how the Age long ago boasted a contributing columnist, a veterinarian, who wrote engagingly of pets and wildlife. Now that Age coverage of the animal kingdom is restricted to doom-laden speculation about which species will drown, fry, freeze, or be forced by the ravages of global warming to relocate to soon-to-be-tropical Macquarie Island, there would seem to be a further opportunity for Holmes to fatten his scrapbook of bylined clippings.
He should write of oxen and consistency and how, when fairness is the issue, it all depends on whose beast is being gored.
Roger Franklin is the editor of Quadrant Online.